What’s a headliner to do when the opening band hits it out of the park? This was the problem that the Diggs Duke Quartet faced at the ’Sco last Saturday night: an opener who set the bar too high. Duke’s performance, sponsored by the Oberlin College Black Musicians Guild, was certainly unusual, but often seemed aimless and unfocused, especially in contrast with the uptempo, brass-driven stylings of superb student band R.A.I.G. Duke and his band members made a valiant attempt to shine, and were successful to some extent. Still, they never matched the energy and enthusiasm cultivated by the opener, resulting in an evening that started strong but eventually petered out.
R.A.I.G — an acronym for “Real As It Gets” — kicked off the evening at 10:45 p.m. with a high-energy dose of jazz fusion colored by funk and hip-hop and centered on a brass trio of trumpet, trombone and saxophone. The ensemble was rounded out by a keyboardist, bassist and drummer in order to provide rhythmic support for the centerpiece brass instruments. The focus on brass was encouraged by the band’s decision to supplement those musicians’ performances with choreographed and well-executed dance steps whenever they took a break from playing. The dancing also facilitated a high level of audience engagement; once or twice, trombonist and Conservatory junior Lawrence Galloway stepped off the stage to encourage those audience members standing toward the front to mimic his steps. College senior Gynarva Monroe also made an appearance on two songs, rapping over R.A.I.G.’s music and thereby breaking up the stretches of otherwise-instrumental music. The audience, dancing and swaying, was clearly exhilarated by the performance; when the band stopped playing, viewers called for an encore, despite the fact that R.A.I.G. was only the opener and, as such, short on time.
On paper, the music of R.A.I.G. and that of the Diggs Duke Quartet isn’t that different. Both ensembles are primarily influenced by jazz and hip-hop but draw from a variety of other sources and have many instruments in common. Their vibes, however, are totally different. In a stark departure from the ethos of the character-driven opening band, Duke didn’t station himself as the frontman of his eponymous quartet, instead singing and playing keyboards from the back of the stage; the position was strangely occupied by the saxophonist. Duke’s reticence is an apt metaphor for his musical style — both are low-key, almost self-effacing — but in the case of the music, the accentuated laid-backness was a liability. Duke’s style is rooted firmly in unconventional recombinations of other genres and techniques and demonstrates a compellingly omnivorous sensibility. But when that sensibility manifests as quietly and slowly as it did on Saturday, the interest of the audience is undermined, making it difficult for the casual viewer to recognize Duke’s ingenuity and forcing one to wonder if the band is really heading anywhere worth following.
The comparison with the opening band, which was inevitably occurring in the mind of the audience, didn’t do the Diggs Duke Quartet any favors, although it was through no fault of Duke or his band that they were judged by that standard. After a crowd is psyched up by a particularly exciting opener, it’s only natural that it should be disappointed when the headliner doesn’t deliver on the unspoken promise of a similarly upbeat, accessible follow-up. But no matter how unfair it is that the two bands are compared, and no matter how cerebral Duke’s particular brand of organic jazz may be, the headliner’s music was missing the pep demanded by the occasion, and as a result the audience’s attention waned. Maybe the Diggs Duke Quartet could take a lesson from R.A.I.G.: The best music is not only original and interesting, but also fun.